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By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin will return for a second season after defections by assistants and players alike helped prompt a school investigation into unspecified concerns.

Auburn President Jay Gogue announced the decision Friday, a week after telling trustees that his office was “trying to separate fact from fiction” surrounding the polarizing coach who was accused publicly by one former player of treating his team “like dogs.”

Gogue decried the “wild speculation” and misinformation in the “feeding frenzy” surrounding Harsin, whose firing would have cost Auburn millions. His contract runs through the 2026 season,

“Let me be clear — our university, the administration Birkenstocks Sandals and the entire Board of Trustees stand behind Coach Harsin and are ready to help him succeed as the leader of our football program,” Gogue said in a letter posted on the university’s website.

He said the review, which started after concerns were raised to his administration, included interviews with current and former coaches and administrative staff under Harsin, plus “numerous” players, administrators and others.

But it led to a week of uncertainty for both Harsin and Auburn fans less than 14 months into his tenure.

“This has been one of the hardest weeks of my career and it had nothing to do with my coaching ability,” Harsin said. “The personal attacks on me and my family went too far and were without justification. … We saw and felt the worst of the worst in some people. Fortunately, we also saw the best of the best in others and we will always be grateful for the support of so many through a very difficult time — our players, staff, the Auburn family, and many others.”

Gogue and Harsin both said he cooperated during the process, but the fact that it was deemed necessary at all still cast doubts on the program’s stability for potential coaching hires and recruits.

Auburn has lost 18 players and five assistant coaches in the aftermath of a 6-7 season. That includes three coordinators: Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and Bobo’s replacement, Austin Davis, resigned for personal reasons, while defensive coordinator Derek Mason left for the same job at Oklahoma State. Harsin has not yet hired a new offensive coordinator.

“To be clear, this process, which was never individual- or outcome-specific, did not yield information that should change the status of our coaching staff or football program,” Gogue said. He also took aim at unspecified rumors on social media.

“Unfortunately, social media fueled wild speculation, substantial misinformation and unfair attacks on good Auburn people,” Gogue said. “A feeding frenzy resulted that was beyond anyone’s control. We regret the concern, anger, frustration or hurt that this caused any member of the Auburn family.”

Gogue announced his retirement last June and his successor, Chris Roberts, starts on May 16.

Among the players who left the program was Central Florida defensive tackle Lee Hunter, who had criticized Harsin’s handling of players in a social media post.

“Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but has Hey Dudes UK a terrible mindset as a person,” Hunter wrote on Instagram. “The reason I chose to leave auburn because we got treated like we wasn’t good enough and like dogs.”

Other players rose to Harsin’s defense, however, including tight end John Samuel Shenker and linebacker Chandler Wooten.

Firing Harsin would have been expensive, especially after Auburn had to pay fired coach Gus Malzahn $21.45 million as part of his buyout.

If Auburn had fired Harsin without cause, the school would have been on the hook for 70% of his contract that runs through the 2026 season and averages $5.25 million per season. That would amount to just over $18 million.

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